Ego Defence Mechanisms and Emotion in Teaching and Learning


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Childhood insecurities can impact later learning. Image courtesy of Janet Cameron, used with permission, all rights reserved.

The preservation of our self-image may help our psychological equilibrium but saving face may hinder our personal growth. Both adult students and children with special needs must learn to set aside defence mechanisms when preparing to enter a classroom.

Many of the ego-defence mechanisms we use are unwitting distortions of reality. Keeping up appearances is a matter of personal pride and human dignity.

While self-deception blinds us to both our flaws and our underlying motivation, we allow emotions to get the better of us. Under duress, some people become more aggressive, while others become passive; some might try to compromise or substitute.

The Ego Function is Largely Unconscious

Ego is defined in the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology, as follows:

“The ego is not simply the conscious mind, as it is often stated in popularized accounts of Freud’s theory; in a neuroses, the ego generates defence mechanisms, and this ego function is largely unconscious. Freud introduced the concept of the ego in his earliest writings… In colloquial usage the word is used to denote a person’s sense of self-esteem.”

Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud (1895-1982) further developed the concept of defence mechanisms in her book The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence.

The Roots of Our Insecurities

Frequently, behaviour brought about by ego defence mechanisms has its roots in childhood classroom experience, especially for kids with learning difficulties, for example, dyslexia.  Such negative experiences are bound to exert a negative impact on later life, and especially on adult learning .

“The teaching of dyslexic children should not have to be considered remedial work. Detected early enough and given the right type of teaching in their schools from the beginning these children would not have to experience failure and frustration,” says Jean Augur, in her book, “This book doesn’t make sens cens sns scens sense.”

However, it’s also important to remember that dyslexia may sometimes, but not always, be the reason a child or an adult is a slow reader.

Compensatory Behaviour

When people feel insecure about their abilities, they may attempt to compensate in some way to draw attention away from their perceived weakness.

  • Eccentricity: Some students compensate for a bruised ego by acting up, exhibiting odd behaviour and wearing strange or provocative clothing.
  • Imagination and fantasy can also provide an escape for many people. Unable to fulfill their needs within their social network, they resort to fulfilling themselves within their personal fantasy world.  The author, as a teacher, experienced the anguish of a lonely young female student, whose life revolved around her pet budgerigar, which she endowed with human qualities, intelligence and emotions.
  • Sublimation means that the student channels his painful energies into some other, less challenging activity.
  • Projection occurs when we attribute those properties we dislike in ourselves to others.
  • Displacement is a dangerous ego-defence mechanism. When angry about one situation (a difficulty with a concept in the classroom) instead of confronting the situation, we may turn our wrath to another direction, such as the teacher.
  • Rationalization: A common defence mechanism is to rationalise, digging deep down inside ourselves to find good, solid reasons for our actions even though we may not have thought of them before we acted.
  • Repression: Alternatively, we may, selectively, forget. This is when something is so painful or repellent to us, we cannot bear to think about it, and so we repress it. This can be a serious problem, as it prevents us from addressing our difficulty and learning from it.

The Need to Save Face and Learn

It’s helpful to be able to identify these ego-defence mechanisms, both in ourselves and in others, particularly in the classroom. We all need to save face sometimes. In teaching situations, it may be possible to tactfully address the issue in a way that is helpful and non-threatening. Change can happen smoothly if the adjustments suggested are small and achievable. Calling for too great a shift in thinking and behaviour, however, may further alienate the other person as it challenges existing life patterns and might, therefore, increase their resistance.

Adult Education Requires Tolerance and Acceptance

Most importantly, teachers in adult education need to convey to students that they can make mistakes without being humiliated or put down. “If you are trying something and it doesn’t work stop and try something new,” says Colin Rose in Accelerated Learning. If people are embarrassed by a mistake, they will not want to try again.

Also, it can be helpful to enable students to see the bigger picture, so that they understand the relevance of what they are learning and become fully engaged in the learning experience – without the interference of defence mechanisms.


Colman, Andrew, M. Ego: Oxford Dictionary of Psychology. (2008). Oxford University Press.

Colman, Andrew, M. Defence Mechanisms: Oxford Dictionary of Psychology. (2008). Oxford University Press.

Rose, Colin. Accelerated Learning. (1991, 2000). Accelerated Learning Systems Ltd. Aylesbury, Bucks.

Augur, Jean. This book doesn’t make sens cens sns scens sense. (2000). British Dyslexic Association.

Rogers, Alan. Teaching Adults. (1986). Open University Press, Milton Keynes.

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